While I’ve been taking time to deal with some family issues, I’ve been reading my own personal choices rather than to a schedule. This has given me the chance to pick up this rather weighty hardback from J.K. Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith. In fact this book was so weighty that my chiropractor had to put my thumb back into place this afternoon. I’d resorted to nestling the book into a soft cushion on my lap so I could finish it. My partner has never seen me so quiet, as I shunned TV and conversation because I was totally engrossed in this novel. Troubled Blood is the fifth book in the Cormoran Strike series and I must admit to being a little in love with the tall, dark, private investigator. I love the author’s slightly shabby descriptions of him with his unkempt curly hair, awkward gait from his prosthetic leg and his broken nose. However. I’m also incredibly fond of his business partner Robin and the obvious love that flows between them, despite both of them denying it, even to themselves.
We meet the pair with Strike’s agency in a good place – there’s a waiting list for clients, three new members of staff and Robin is now a full partner in the business. Some things stay the same though -Robin still drives the Land Rover, Strike is still smoking and living in the attic above the office, and there is still that unresolved tension around how Robin and Strike really feel about each other. Strike is in Cornwall, visiting his aunt and uncle, the closest people he has to parents. Strike’s father is Johnny Rokeby, rock musician and tabloid fodder. Strike’s mother was a beautiful, bohemian groupie who never had an idea of how to be a mum and abandoned Strike to his Aunt Joan in his primary school years. Joan is possibly, after Robin, the most important person in his world and she’s had a diagnosis of terminal cancer. While drinking with best mate Davey at the local pub, Strike is approached by two women. Anna tells Strike the story of her mother’s disappearance over forty years ago. She was working as a GP in London and saw a last minute patient, before leaving to meet a friend in a nearby pub. She never arrived. Despite extensive investigations she appears to have vanished into thin air. They make an agreement with Strike that he will look into it for a year. With several investigations ongoing and a long waiting list, this looks like the busiest the agency has ever been, but how will Strike manage his workload and spend time with Joan when he needs to?
Robin is happy to pick up some of Strike’s workload in London, such as the staff rota and catch up meetings. However, she does struggle to get one of the new staff members to take her seriously as an equal partner in the agency. She’s balancing this problem, her increasingly contentious divorce, important news about ex-husband Matthew, and supporting Strike as much as she can. This means pulling long shifts of surveillance after a day in the office. She loves her job as much as she did at the beginning but she is struggling with panic attacks related to an incident at university and a case where she was attacked with a knife. Anyone trying to push their way into her space, whether by sending inappropriate pictures or brushing up against her in the office, will come off worst from the encounter. She is doing a lot of soul searching in this instalment of the series, as her friendship with Strike deepens she asks herself a lot of questions.
The main case was very satisfying, with lots of clues, red herrings and bizarre twists and turns. The investigating officer at the time of Margaret’s disappearance appears to have had an obsession with Aleister Crowley and astrology. His notebook is a very odd mix of drawings, notes on the main people suspected and the record of a gradual descent into madness. He was sectioned after seeing a horned goat demon. Robin finds more meaning in it than Strike, and it does yield some clues, but it’s clear the original investigation was inadequate. By chance, a serial killer was prowling the very same area and the police’s official line is that she was possibly taken by him but it can’t be proved. I found the case mentally challenging and full of fascinating characters too. The psychological aspects of the interviews was really intriguing, showing that even in a small 1960s doctors surgery there can be a lot of secrets buried. It was interesting to see more of Robin working on her own and how far she’s come since the first book. As the case gathered momentum I found myself gripped and I kept wanting to pick the book up again to read more, even though it was looking likely that the author was going to keep the case unresolved.
Make no mistake, this book was huge. I always reserve the right to DNF a book if I’m not feeling it by a certain point in the story. Like Bradley Cooper’s character in Silver Linings Playbook, I’ll happily throw a book out of the window if it’s not grabbing me or is overlong. I never felt that with this novel, besides I wouldn’t have dared throw this out of the window for fear of killing someone! I never felt a lull in the story, so it kept me engaged all the way through. This wasn’t just down to the cases, in fact I’d worked out one of them almost immediately – men visiting a woman’s house for a period of time where there are large deliveries of nappies – for which I blame a misspent youth watching every fetish going on C4’s Eurotrash. It was the themes running through the novel that kept me reading too. Absent parents loomed large: for their client Anna who having lost her Mum, had to watch her Dad marry the nanny; for Strike whose half-siblings are pestering him moook for a catch up with their rock star Dad, much to his disgust; even Robin feels dislocated from her family, who can’t understand her choice of career brought into stark relief as her ex-husband is about to become a father. We can see what a beautiful, but absent mother has done to Strike as he keeps Robin as his very best friend and struggles to keep ex-girlfriend Charlotte at a distance. Charlotte is the beautiful damsel in distress who will always pull him towards her when she’s vulnerable, only to withdraw as soon as she is back on her feet. It will take Strike to cut their line of communication but will he be able to do it. The stress of losing his aunt, Charlotte’s pestering and his father applying pressure, results in Strike choosing to drink too much and pushing those who love him most away.
I also enjoyed the ongoing development of Robin and the themes around female power and agency. Being Strike’s partner and his absences in Cornwall, mean she’s the boss. Trying to get all of their staff to accept that is difficult for one of their contractors who tries flirting and sexting, goes around her to get Strike’s approval and doesn’t take her seriously at all. She has to really assert her authority, it isn’t comfortable for her but she’s scared of enough in life without having to be wary at work. When she fights back and Strike finds out the true extent of the matter, his instinct is to physically defend her, but Robin doesn’t want to be rescued. She knows logically that her size and strength leave her slightly vulnerable while working in the same environment as the men. However, in terms of management and investigation skills she really does want to be Strike’s equal. I loved the way these themes were echoed in the case, with the missing woman being assertive, well-informed and educated around women’s rights and health. Some of the possible suspects are in the frame, because she was seen to interfere, to get mixed up in domestic violence cases or unwanted pregnancies and find solutions for those women.
I’m aware of there being controversy around the representation of a possible transgender character. I think this aspect of the book could have been handled better. An emergency patient turned up at the surgery just as Margaret was going to leave, and she agreed to see her. In all the accounts of witnesses they describe a woman with some very masculine characteristics and jump to the conclusion that it’s a man dressed as a woman. This then becomes confused with the passing serial killer who is thought to dress as a woman when approaching victims so they are less wary. One character even makes a comment about other serial killers who liked to dress in women’s clothing. I felt this was quite sloppily done and seems to be saying there’s a link between criminality, violence and men who wear women’s clothes or who are transgender. There should have been more emphasis placed on the fact that these men are not transgender, but are dressing as women for the purpose of disarming victims and luring them into a van or an alleyway. It’s purely a disguise for the purposes of murder, rather than a sign that transgender people are all deviant. This is something editors should be more aware of in the 21st Century and it was a shame to see it in a book I otherwise loved.
This latest instalment in the Strike series is a cracking read and keeps you gripped, despite the fact it’s huge! Every case is interesting, but the main story is such a puzzle and each time there’s a revelation it’s like peeling another layer off an onion. I never suspected the person responsible and that says a lot about my prejudices and bias, as well as societal expectations. There’s a real streak of social justice running through this novel with certain characters and from my work within the mental health system I did recognise the worry that people are falling through the net and being let down as government funding is withdrawn due to austerity. I recognised the practice of ‘cuckooing’ where a vulnerable person’s home is taken over for criminal purposes such as storing stolen goods, dealing drugs, or hiding body parts. I find it amazing that the author can bring so many strands together, while fully occupying her characters and showing us their inner worlds. I loved my time with Strike and Robin, and I thought the ending was lovely. This was a gripping, multi-layered and intelligent thriller with a simmering attraction between our two main characters that will have you rooting for them.